Country: Saudi Arabia
Placed in Group A along with Russia, Egypt and Uruguay.
🇷🇺🇸🇦Welcome to #Russia, @SaudiNT!💚— РоссиЯ 🇷🇺 (@Russia) June 9, 2018
مرحبا بك في روسيا
Plane carrying #SaudiArabia’s football team landed in #StPetersburg ahead of @FIFAWorldCup. Saudi Arabia will play Russia in the opening game of the tournament, as well as Egypt and Uruguay, also drawn in Group A⚽️ pic.twitter.com/X5X4SISIbY
June 14: Vs Russia, 8.30pm IST (Moscow)
June 20: Vs Uruguay, 8.30pm IST (Rostov)
June 25: Vs Egypt, 7.30pm IST (Volgograd)
FIFA ranking: 67
Previous World Cup: Not qualified
Best finish: Round of 16, 1994
Star players: Mohammad Al Sahlawi (Striker, Al Nassr), Yasser Al Shahrani (Right back, Al Hilal), Fahad Al Muwallad (Winger, Al Ittihad)
Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi
Known for their hire and fire policy, Saudi Arabia fired two coaches during the qualification campaign itself. First they gave the pink slip to Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk, who will be guiding the Socceroos in Russia, appointed former UAE boss Edgardo Bauza, only to dismiss him only two month later and brought in Juan Antonio Pizzi.
The Argentinian-born coach, who guided Chile to Copa America triumph in 2016, has since gone on to establish a new tactical identity for the team; one that emphasises the value of pressing high up the pitch and retaining possession for extended period.
🎙| Главный тренер национальной сборной, Хуан Антонио Пицци дал интервью официальному телеканалу ФИФА, после прибытия сборной в город Санкт-Петербург pic.twitter.com/f9by3mybzp— Сборная КСА по футболу (@SaudiNT_RU) June 10, 2018
Pizzi, who played for Spain during the 1998 World Cup in France, represents a shift from Van Marwijk's conservative approach as he prefers a high press system coupled with plenty of ball possession.
Whether the six-month period since he effectively took over is enough for the players to fully adapt to his ways is arguably the biggest question for the Green Falcons, who are arguably the best team in Middle East.
Fahad Al Muwallad, the pacey winger, who came off the bench to score the winner against Japan and book the berth to Russia, holds the key to Saudi's fortunes. Dynamic forward Mohammad Al Sahlawi, who was the joint top-scorer in the Road to Russia with 16 goals is another player to watch out for. Captain Osama Hawsawi leads from the back and with Pizzi including only three full-backs in the 23-man touring party, Yasser Al Shahrani's versatility in playing on either flank also becomes key for Saudi Arabia. They can also draw strength from the huge contingent of travelling fans.
Inconsistency has been their bane and in addition to it, lack of international exposure is another major concern for the team as most of the players come from the two main teams in the domestic league. No wonder Saudi are dubbed as rank-outsiders as far as the tournament prospects are considered.
Prediction: Making the World Cup cut after a 12-year gap, Saudi Arabia would like to make it count, but it is difficult to see them progress from a group which has heavyweights like Uruguay and Egypt, who are fancied to make it to the knockout phase. The opening game against Russia, incidentally which will kick off the World Cup is a crucial one for the Green Falcons. A victory against the host nation, or even a draw will boost their morale.